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What's institutional bricolage and how can it improve infrastructure and lives?

28 March 2019

The French word ‘bricolage’ has a range of meanings related to ‘DIY’ and upcycling. Building on this concept, Brendan Bromwich and Eiman Karar explain how ‘institutional bricolage’ has helped infrastructure professionals to overcome a variety of challenges in Darfur, Sudan.

What's institutional bricolage and how can it improve infrastructure and lives?
Women at a water pump in Darfur, after improvements in water governance.

The long-running conflict in Darfur has had a devastating human cost. And yet, as the region seeks to move on and find arrangements for a lasting peace, the social fabric now needs to be restored.

For engineers and environmentalists seeking to support Darfur’s recovery, a key victim of the conflict has been the system of environmental governance that formerly enabled competing groups to share access to natural resources peacefully.

In the context of social upheaval and failing governance, depletion of critical water resources became a pressing challenge for humanitarian actors.?

Somehow, new ways of sharing water equitably had to be found, but what sort of design could address everyone’s needs satisfactorily without exacerbating conflict somewhere else?

In such situations of prolonged and entrenched conflict, one might assume that the most effective response would be a tightly controlled, detailed arrangement clearly explained to all stakeholders and that adherence to this plan by all participants must be strictly enforced.

Instead, ‘institutional bricolage’ seems to be far more effective. Why?

What is institutional bricolage?

As described above, institutional bricolage is a process through which ideas from one organisation or group are copied, modified, and recycled elsewhere. Poor arrangements are discarded; the useful ones are taken forward in new ways.

Institutional bricolage explains how the best parts of projects may be adopted and modified, as actors seek solutions for complex environmental governance deficits.

Plural processes are welcomed and worked with; there’s a high frequency of cross-domain borrowing and multi-purpose institutions.

Where natural resource institutions and practices are contested, then a feed of new ideas into a locally-owned process of change has more scope, and potentially more lasting benefit, than promoting a grand scheme to resolve contested institutions.

When there’s a political window for major institutional change, such as a major peace agreement, then it may be time to scale up or reinvent earlier more exploratory institutional initiatives.

Opportunities for major change, however, are rare. By contrast, if practitioners can locate their work in emerging institutional trends and contribute new ideas in support of locally-owned institutional innovation then lasting change can be promoted in a range of political contexts.

Building blocks for change

The crisis in Darfur gave an urgency to the need for new practices on water governance, and yet through a process of bricolage new ideas used in Darfur have been adopted and modified across Sudan.

Over time, a significant change in approach towards a catchment-based and consultative approach to water resources management has been achieved across much of rural Sudan.

A sequence of significant water projects by many different actors has provided core building blocks for ongoing institutional bricolage:

  • A ‘south-south’ exchange programme for Darfuri engineers and politicians enabling them to witness how the South African water sector worked towards racial integration in the aftermath of apartheid.
  • The contextualising of that learning with local government at catchment level in the EU funded Wadi El Ku Catchment Management Project – which won the UNCCD ‘land for life’ award in 2017.
  • Community catchment management initiatives on the Eastern Nile, the Gash river and Khor Abu Habil.
  • A cross-government vision building process on integrated water resources management (IWRM) at the national level which led to the upgrading of the Groundwater and Wadis Unit within the Ministry of Irrigation and the establishment of a dedicated IWRM office.
  • Two rounds of DFID-funded programmes led by ZOA that have adapted learning from Wadi El Ku to smaller catchment management projects across Sudan.
  • UN Environment has had an ongoing role supporting work on IWRM funding from DFID.
  • New initiatives by the African Development Bank, JICA, and UNICEF blending IWRM approaches with conventional water supply projects.

The latest, and perhaps most far-reaching, step is that the highly influential Dams Implementation Unit, through its hosted Regional UNESCO Centre for Water Harvesting, is now developing approaches to enhance community involvement in its work in rural areas.

Institutional bricolage: multiple pathways of change for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The real story, then, is one of many agents of change across the water sector in Sudan engaging in collective efforts and achieving longer-lasting transformation.

The ideas running through the earlier projects and consultations have been picked up, modified, and recycled in adaptive ways in current activities.

Although many of these changes grew out of an initiative in Darfur, over the course of a decade they have coalesced with other programmes and collectively achieved national impact across Sudan.

This overview of change over time in Sudan highlights a challenge practitioners and funding agencies face relating to the complexity of attributing impact in a process of long-term change.

The indicator for IWRM (SDG 6.5.1) focusses on formal policy processes – reasonably so for a national measure with global relevance.

However, the change on the ground in terms of access to water, restored ecosystems and participatory processes are captured in other indicators for SDG6.

The Sudan IWRM experience shows that by taking a holistic perspective on change, the potential to understand attribution and to target further investment is enhanced.

A project’s full value may not be immediately recognised or measurable, however, the wider perspective on change that institutional bricolage provides amplifies the case for investment, showing how long-term impact comes about.

This more holistic approach to evaluation of progress towards SDGs would show how different projects interact with local processes and influence long-term change.

  • Brendan Bromwich, Principal Advisor, Water Consultancy Division, Mott MacDonald
  • Eiman Karar, Senior Advisor, United Nations Environmental Programme